Portraying extreme emotions in fiction

Stories are all about the people in them (just like real life) and so of course, the most important scenes of any story are the ones where the characters experience intense emotions. It's extra important to portray them accurately, and strike a balance that neither downplays the magnitude of their emotions nor comes off as melodramatic. Generally speaking the more emotional the characters are the harder a task you're giving yourself to write them well (since you have to write it without feeling what they are firsthand).

It's usually better to communicate the character's feelings through their thoughts that surround the emotion rather than directly using the word for the emotion. Example: instead of writing (assuming 1st person present) "I'm really mad at her", write, "What the hell! How could she do this and think it's okay?" Concrete thoughts like this make it far easier for a reader to imagine the character's feelings than just stating how the character feels. (This is an application of "show, don't tell".)

A related technique is to use the bodily reactions caused by many emotions. Mentioning how a character presses their eyes shut to begin crying or gets a pit in their stomach when they're afraid helps the audience to imagine the character's suffering.

Obviously, music plays a huge role in applicable media. A lot of this responsibility falls on the musician and not the writer, but there's still some decisions the writer can make.

I think the reason this is a thing is that it mirrors how *we* react. Most of us, if something like that happened while we were speaking, would trail off our voice and give a moment of silence.

Doki Doki Literature Club review

How about some concrete examples of really good scenes? I think The Owl House season 1 finale had some moments like this that were really well executed.

The Owl House episode-by-episode review

Doki Doki Literature Club is a masterpiece in this regard (and every other!). However this one is a *huge* spoiler so I'm gonna put it after the bottom. (Go play the game!)


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MC's reaction to Sayori's death.

His first thought: "What the hell?" He starts with a general expression of shock before any thoughts about about the ramifications of what he's seeing. The line is repeated once.

Next he has thoughts like "Is this a nightmare? It... has to be". The denial phase. It's natural to look for any way to deny reality when you see something you really don't want to be true, even if only for a few seconds. The writer drags this out a bit, with the next lines being "This isn't real", "There's no way this can be real", "Sayori wouldn't do this", etc. This seems to bolster the effect; we don't want to breeze through these thoughts too quickly. A real person would probably spend several seconds at this phase, so the writer does too, even though it only takes one line to make the point.

Next, as MC accepts it as reality, the writer mentions in his thoughts, "I suppress the urge to vomit". This line is a great example of using bodily reactions.

MC's thoughts continue into the main phase of grief and guilt, but he doesn't just think "I feel sad" and expect the player to sympathize. He goes through "I could have prevented this if I just did (xyz)!", "Nothing in my life is worth more than hers... but I still couldn't do what she needed from me", and "I'll carry this guilt with me until I die". These are concrete thoughts that do a very good job of helping you imagine MC's pain.

Of course, a huge part of the magic of this scene was also the music it plays. That song captures MC's state of mind perfectly, and it's beautiful. The song is physically painful to listen to.

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